Monday, September 21, 2015

Earbuds Overload: Making the Most of Societal Escapes

By Ed Tech Maniac, Darin Anderson

If you work at or near a school (or airport or mall or anywhere else), you perhaps have noticed a disturbing trend amongst the youth - and many adults - of the world today.

I'm not talking about the styles of clothing, hair, and makeup that would make our grandmothers simultaneously shudder in fear and weep for the future. No, what I am referring to is the popular practice of earbuds being used as a recidivist devices.

From my observations in schools specifically, I have seen phone files firmly inserted as a divide between teacher & student and even student & student. While there is an appropriate time and place for music streamed through Beats by Dre, the idea of students retreating into themselves will not yield positive results in the long run.

The science behind the addiction to music provides insight into why helping students break away from earbuds will be both imperative to their wellbeing as well as an entirely difficult process.

Consider this generic scenario: A student leaves her house at 7:15am to board a bus that takes her to a place she does not necessarily want to go. Immediately she pops in her earphones and traces a path of social removal into a world that she both understands and enjoys. The music speaks to her and she lives her life accordingly even as she is surrounded by friends, peers, and copious amounts of school work that she may or may not find irrelevant.

Her teacher either allows her to be half-in during instruction (as is evidenced by the one ear-bud placed in her ear) or he has given up trying to get her involved in daily activities.

Knowing that the human brain, the frontal cortex in particular, cannot process more than one stimuli at a time, it is nearly impossible for hum-drum instruction or even interaction with peers to consistently win out over her undying interest in Fallout Boy or Major Lazer.
The concerns among teachers, of course, are the disengaged student and competing against what causes students to retreat. In years past, the devices were sufficiently large enough (think 80s style boomboxes) to not be practical, while the concept of connectivity was not even an issue. But now, in our connected society, educators must balance the use and the banishment of Personal Isolation Devices, or PIDs.

But now that the problem has been laid out, here are a few suggestions for either lessening the desire to sink into the world of earbuds or to temporarily abolish it:

  • Understand that retreating into music can be a signal of something good. Music can help inspire and motivate students to greatness. Just as a weightlifter uses tunes to push through a workout, students may also benefit from the extrinsic stimulus music provides. 
  • Quality student-centered instruction is often the remedy for most anti-cooperative behavior. If status quo content delivery renders the same results time after time, maybe those teachers need to re-evaluate their practices. Interesting content can take away the temptation of a student to wind away the minutes with Metallica.
  • Music can help remove distractions. If the student can indeed complete quality work with the aid of music to keep peers' antics at bay, then the ends justify the means. 
  • Relationships with others trump the need for music-induced dopamine. The chemical dependency on music often fills the gap left by social interaction with others. Dopamine offered by laughing with friends can replace the need to wander through crowds in extrinsic silence.
  • Engage students in high-interest peer discussions. Explicitly teaching young people how to properly interact with others, while dissecting relevant content, can invite them away from playlists and into the world of meaningful human interaction.
  • Let kids be kids, with parameters. Outright bans of headsets will most likely result in an unwanted battle of wills. If music is their thing, let them go for it, while providing constant situations to practice real communication with peers. If the kids know they will have opportunities to rock out during math, they will not be as likely to obsess over connection to music.
Truly, with the wide variety of personalities and backgrounds amongst the students we see everyday, there are a few commonalities shared by the human race.

1. The need to be entertained (or find intrinsic motivation)
2. The need to be involved and accepted
When #1 is present, the need for music (or Instagram, etc.) subsides. When #2 is present the need for extraneous stimulus subsides. When neither is present, humans search for them both in other places, and often music becomes a simple stop-gap escape mechanism.

If our classrooms provide environments that serve to entertain, at least mildly, in order to activate the students' intrinsic motivation, we have greater odds of helping to alleviate their fixation on earbuds and streaming music.

Not that it is possible to successfully engage every student every hour of every day...but it is a step in the right direction.

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